Growing pains come at a price for the Lions

 

Lions prepared to stick with rookie kicker Richie Leone, despite erratic performances

 
 
 
 
B.C. Lions kicker Richie Leone missed his sixth convert in the past 12 attempts and was wide on a makable field goal that nearly turned into disaster as Edmonton’s Kendial Lawrence returned the missed field goal 80 yards, only to have the play called back because of a penalty in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Eskimos on Saturday.
 
 

B.C. Lions kicker Richie Leone missed his sixth convert in the past 12 attempts and was wide on a makable field goal that nearly turned into disaster as Edmonton’s Kendial Lawrence returned the missed field goal 80 yards, only to have the play called back because of a penalty in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Eskimos on Saturday.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

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EDMONTON — When the B.C. Lions dumped Old Reliable, Paul McCallum, in training camp this year, the ungracious treatment of a fan favourite did not sit well with many in the team’s constituency.Yet, mesmerized by the power and promise of 23-year-old Richie Leone, the Lions deemed McCallum, 45, expendable in a bold and risky decision to add kicking duties to Leone’s certified talent as a punter.

From the start, GM Wally Buono and head coach Jeff Tedford looked like the smartest men in the room. Leone, who had never kicked field goals for a full season, was perfect through his first five games — converting all 12 attempts. One of those was a monster 56-yard kick against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in B.C.‘s home opener on July 10. The pressure field goal — the longest in Lions’ history — tied the game with 15 seconds left, a game the Lions eventually won, 35-32 in overtime.

Still, most coaches will take consistency over almost anything else in a kicker. While Leone is a super talent, he is going through the growing pains that have afflicted young kickers through the ages, as if a mandated rite of passage.

“It’s tough, when you’re not used to playing so many games in a year,” said Sean Whyte, the Eskimos’ veteran kicker. “You start to feel the eyes on you. There’s more pressure. It’s not like in university where, if you miss, you still get to play the next week. Here, if you miss, you might not have a job. It’s a different kind of pressure. Once you start to miss, it gets in your head. You’re thinking, ‘Don’t screw up.’ For me, when I miss now, I know what I did wrong. I don’t have any negative thoughts in my mind.”

There was nothing but positive vibes Saturday night as Whyte, now in his seventh CFL season, booted six field goals, including two in overtime, as the Eskimos defeated the Lions 26-23 at Commonwealth Stadium, another “gut wrenching” defeat (Tedford’s words) partly paid at de feet of Leone. The rookie missed his sixth convert in the past 12 attempts and was wide on a makable field goal that nearly turned into disaster. Edmonton’s Kendial Lawrence returned the missed field goal 80 yards, only to have the play called back because of a penalty.

After his early season roll, placements have turned into something of an adventure for Leone. In B.C’s previous visit to Edmonton, on Sept. 26, he missed an easy 15-yard field goal attempt and shanked a punt, leading to the Eskimos’ winning touchdown.

“I feel I’ve shown some success doing all three (punts, field goals and kickoffs),” said Leone. “When I regularly get put in positions to try and make a field goal, that says a lot. He (Tedford) kind of lets me go out there and do it. He compliments me when I make them, and encourages me when they don’t go in. I guess I’m grateful for that.”

After Winnipeg, the team chasing the Lions in the turtle derby for third place in the West Division, lost 24-23 to the Eskimos, on Whyte’s 53-yard, last-play field goal, the Blue Bombers recruited import kicker Sergio Castillo to take the pressure off homebrew Lirim Hajrullahu, who missed four field goals in that same game. Castillo did all of the place-kicking (five field goals) in the Blue Bombers’ 29-26 over the Lions on Oct. 10 while Hajrullahu concentrated on punts and kickoffs. Similarly, the Eskimos also split duties between Whyte (field goals) and Grant Shaw (punts, kickoffs) with positive results Saturday night.

But Tedford said he’s not prepared to go that route — or activate Anthony Fera, an import kicker on the Lions’ practice roster. Fera kicked and punted for the Texas Longhorns in 2012 and 2013. He was a consensus All — American and a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, which is given to the best college kicker in the U.S.

“We need to get Richie over the hump. We need to get his confidence back,” Tedford said. “He has a lot of talent. He made a big kick in overtime (37-yard field goal). He just needs to keep working at it.”

No will ever be able to compute just how much a team’s success and momentum is derived from a confident kicker, but there’s no doubt that kickers are difference-makers. Going into Week 17 of the 2015 season, 38 per cent of CFL games had been decided by four points or less, a record. A reliable kicker such as Whyte — he has been successful on 90 per cent of his field goals since he joined the Esks on Sept. 4 — has a statistical as well as mystical worth.

“As an athlete, and a competitor, you want the ball,” Leone said. “I want to be the guy they count on. That’s why I’m doing all three (kicking jobs). They showed confidence in me by letting Paul go.”

As McCallum, Whyte or any kicker of experience knows, to reach excellence you must first pass through some turbulence.

mbeamish@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/sixbeamers

Game essentials

THE SKINNY

Despite three interceptions by Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly, the first giving cornerback Ronnie Yell a gift touchdown, the Eskimos know how to win; the Lions know how to lose. Reilly took his team on a desperate 15-play drive in the closing two minutes of regulation to tie the game 20-20 on Sean Whyte’s fourth field goal. Whyte booted two more in overtime, the second giving the Eskimos a 26-23 win after Jonathon Jennings threw his only interception of the game. The 12-4 Esks have won six straight. The 5-10 Lions lost for the fifth time in the past six games.

TURNING POINT

With the Lions ahead 19-17 late in the fourth quarter, B.C. took advantage of a couple of pass interference calls to scrimmage on first down at the Edmonton one-yard line. But backup quarterback Greg McGhee, who replaced starter Jonathon Jennings on the short-yardage play, fumbled the snap into the end zone, giving the Eskimos a reprieve, after Deon Lacey’s recovery. “It can’t happen,” McGhee said. “If we score there, there’s no chance of them coming back.” It was the only time McGhee (mis) handled the football in the game. Jeff Tedford: “That’s what he’s been practising to do all week.”

THE JENNINGS FILE

In Jon Jennings’ previous four games (starting in the second quarter Sept. 18 in Calgary, when he replaced injured John Beck), the Lions’ passing attack had averaged 343 yards compared to 219 over the previous 10. The wunderkind had a tougher go against the Eskimos’ vaunted defence, throwing for 229 yards (the smallest total in any of his four starts) and a single touchdown — to Manny Arceneaux, after a room-service interception return by Alex Hoffman-Ellis placed the ball on Edmonton’s three-yard line. “He (Jennings) did a good job — up until that last play (an overtime interception),” Tedford said.

SPECIALS IMPROVE

After a stumbling performance by the special teams units a week earlier against Winnipeg, the Lions’ were sharper in that vital aspect of the game. Mic’hael Brooks blocked a 34-yard FG attempt by Sean Whyte and Marco Iannuzzi (56 yards) and Chris Rainey (32 yards) were one move away from scoring touchdowns on punt returns (punter Grant Shaw was the Eskimos’ salvation, in both cases). It was the longest runback of Iannuzzi’s five-year CFL career. Kicker Richie Leone, however, missed his sixth convert in the past 12 attempts and was wide on a makable third-quarter field goal attempt.

BY THE NUMBERS

Ronnie Yell’s first-quarter interception was the fourth of his CFL career — and the third time he has returned a pick to the end zone. ... Edmonton’s Adarius Bowman, who had a 69-yard touchdown reception, finished the game with 11 catches for 198 yards. ... The Lions rushed for just 25 yards in 11 attempts, with 11 of those yards coming on a single burst by quarterback Jonathon Jennings. Feature back Andrew Harris picked up just two yards on six carries, yet he remains the CFL’s rushing leader (868 yards). ... Halfback T.J. Lee had seven tackles, an interception and a pass knockdown.

 
 
 
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B.C. Lions kicker Richie Leone missed his sixth convert in the past 12 attempts and was wide on a makable field goal that nearly turned into disaster as Edmonton’s Kendial Lawrence returned the missed field goal 80 yards, only to have the play called back because of a penalty in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Eskimos on Saturday.
 

B.C. Lions kicker Richie Leone missed his sixth convert in the past 12 attempts and was wide on a makable field goal that nearly turned into disaster as Edmonton’s Kendial Lawrence returned the missed field goal 80 yards, only to have the play called back because of a penalty in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Eskimos on Saturday.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

 
B.C. Lions kicker Richie Leone missed his sixth convert in the past 12 attempts and was wide on a makable field goal that nearly turned into disaster as Edmonton’s Kendial Lawrence returned the missed field goal 80 yards, only to have the play called back because of a penalty in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Eskimos on Saturday.
Edmonton Eskimos’ Sean Whyte (6) kicks the winning field goal in overtime against the B.C. Lions on Saturday.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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